Ivano Rodriguez

Given that on an average day 22 American combat veterans commit suicide, it’s a species of miracle that Ivano Rodriguez is still alive. It may be an even greater miracle that Rodriguez, a resident of Washington State who has used marijuana to treat his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), hasn’t been exiled to Ecuador by a federal immigration judge.

Miracles are always in short supply, and Rodriguez needs at least one more in order to become a U.S. citizen – something most people would assume he earned by serving multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines. Until he becomes a citizen, Rodriguez will continue to live in the shadow of potential deportation to Ecuador, the country where he was born before being brought to the United States as a very young child.

In an interview with the Latin Times, Rodriguez explains that he enlisted in the Marines in 2006, shortly after graduating from High School in Virginia. He was one of an estimated 8,000 non-citizens who enlisted in the military that year hoping to expedite their naturalization as U.S. citizens. In the five years that had passed between 9/11 and the day Rodriguez signed his enlistment contract, thousands of “green-card soldiers” had become naturalized citizens – many of them posthumously. Rodriguez enlisted just in time for the Bush administration’s “surge,” which demanded significant additional troops at a time when recruitment rates had plummeted.

Following his active-duty deployment to Iraq, Rodriguez returned to Virginia and enrolled in classes at Virginia Tech as a reservist. He was recalled to active duty for a second “surge” in 2009 – this one in Afghanistan. His platoon was deployed to a Taliban-heavy village near the Pakistan border, where three of Rodriguez’s buddies were killed, and three others seriously wounded, in a suicide bombing. Several others, including Rodriguez, were casualties of a different kind: While sound of wind and limb, they suffered serious and lasting psychological trauma of the kind that fuels the horrifying suicide rate among combat veterans.

Upon returning from Afghanistan, Rodriguez once again enrolled in school – this time at the Art Institute of Washington. But his studies suffered as he found it impossible to sleep. Once he closed his eyes, Rodriguez had recurring nightmares in which he watched helplessly as people were killed in front of him.

“What did these guys die for?” Rodriguez would ask himself, thinking of the fellow Marines who were killed in Afghanistan. “The answer’s not there.”

Desperate to overcome his sleep disorder, and concerned about growing suicidal impulses, Rodriguez sought help from the Veterans Administration, which diagnosed him with PTSD in 2011. The agency simply “pushed anti-depressants and pain pills and sleep aids,” he recalls. Like too many others who have received such “treatment,” Rodriguez began to experience the well-documented but inadequately discussed “side effects” of such pharmaceuticals, which include suicidal thoughts.

Every day, American combat veterans suffering from PTSD commit suicide as the result of such iatrogenic treatment. Rodriguez was fortunate enough to learn about the beneficial effects of cannabis in treating that condition. Although – or perhaps because – the VA is eager to promote the use of dangerous pharmaceuticals to treat PTSD, the agency does not validate prescriptions for cannabis to treat that condition, yet. As a result, Rodriguez has four misdemeanors on his record for possessing marijuana and “drug paraphernalia.”

Those misdemeanors were flagged by a Customs official at JFK Airport last year when Rodriguez was returning from a trip to visit family in Ecuador. This resulted in his arrest and detention – and in deportation proceedings under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (ATEDPA).

Enacted in the aftermath of the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993, ATEDPA was larded with provisions that had no plausible connection to any definable terrorist threat. It was also laden with potential landmines for individual liberties. Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington), a supporter of the bill, acknowledged that by enacting it the Senate was “chipping away at the edges of freedom” and that “we have no idea what kind of mistakes will be made, or whose rights will be infringed, when this bill is implemented.”

Among the Americans whose rights would be infringed by that bill was Ivano Rodriguez, who was in grade school at the time when it was enacted. One criminal justice “enhancement” contained in that bill was a provision mandating the deportation of foreign nationals (including legal residents) who commit “aggravated felonies” or crimes of “moral turpitude.” Narcotics offenses fall into that vague and inclusive category, including unauthorized use of marijuana.

As a high school student, Rodriguez – like countless others – got in trouble for recreational marijuana use, and those juvenile offenses remain on his record. However, they didn’t disqualify him from enlisting in the military on foreign battlefields where he might have been killed. Yet his use of marijuana to deal with his lasting – and potentially fatal – psychological injuries led to his arrest and could still lead to his exile.
“I swore an oath to the Constitution,” Rodriguez recalls, pointing out that his supposed “moral turpitude” didn’t disqualify him for military service. “Is that not enough?”

Under Washington State law, Rodriguez was free to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, as a green card holder he is still considered to be under the jurisdiction of his home state, Virginia. His deportation hearing, as defined by the 1996 law, was held in a civil court in which he had no right to legal representation. However, as Latin Times reports, the presiding judge dismissed the complaint against Rodriguez “with prejudice.” This is not the end of the matter, however.

Rodriguez remains a non-citizen, and his application for naturalization has been repeatedly rebuffed because of what the federal government insists is his “bad moral character” – supposedly demonstrated by his juvenile offense record. Once again, the federal government didn’t regard him as a man of defective character when it inducted him into the Marines.

While he remains a non-citizen, Rodriguez lives with the possibility that the government he served may seek again to banish him as punishment for using an effective but unauthorized treatment to address the lasting trauma he experiences as a result of that service. Because of the federal government’s irrational commitment to pot prohibition, Ivano Rodriguez could still be forced to choose between death and exile.